Cool Cats: Gene Gauntier, the Daredevil Writer

With this past week’s announcement of the Oscar categories, I think a lot of us found ourselves frustrated with the lack of acknowledgement women received from the Academy. The snub with the most buzz seems to be Greta Gerwig’s exclusion from Best Director, and that’s been met with a pretty wide criticism that “if women want to get more recognition, they should make more movies.”

I think now is a great time to remember that women have been part of the film industry since day one, and they helped start the film industry. The male-dominated trends that began in the 1920s do not reflect how the business began, some thirty years earlier. In fact, in the very beginning of Hollywood, the most successful screenwriter wasn’t a man; it was, in fact, a woman named Gene Gauntier.

Gauntier was born May 17, 1885. At age 19, she began her career as a stage actress in New York City, working big roles with traveling companies for very little pay. In 1906, she took her first role in a film--a new technology at the time, one which nobody believed would succeed. Little did she know that, within a few short years, she would be one of most powerful and independent writers/producers of the entire industry.

In Gauntier’s first motion picture, she was hired to perform a daredevil stunt, acting as the damsel in distress thrown into a river. Her next parts were very similar, young women in jeopardy from dangers like train robbers or bucking horses. In 1907, she debuted with Kalem Studios, where she came to be known as “The Kalem Girl," and where she went on to become the studio's most popular actress.

Despite early doubts that movies would succeed, the demand for short films soon skyrocketed, and studios didn’t have the means to produce fast enough. Actors like Gauntier started pitching scenarios on the spot, filming quick one-reel stories, approximately 10 to 20 minutes long each, within a day.

It wasn’t long before Gauntier was Kalem’s most successful actress and most successful screenwriter. On average, she made $20 per screenplay, while directors were only making $10. These days, that would shake out to about $509 per script, and while that still may not seem like a whole lot for Hollywood dollars, remember that she was doing a couple of these per week, as well as getting paid for acting, producing and marketing. In the fledgling film industry, Gauntier was making bank.

Often, the films Gauntier wrote were full of melodrama and action, consisting predominantly of captures and escapes, bandits, detectives, wars and femme fatales. The pace of production was equally as fast as the stories she wrote. A script would often be proposed in January, shot in February and distributed by March.

She wrote of her own process, “In addition to playing the principal parts, I also wrote, with the exception of a bare half-dozen, every one of the five hundred or so pictures in which I appeared. I picked locations, supervised sets, passed on tests, co-directed with Sidney Olcott, cut and edited and wrote captions…and, with it all, averaged a reel a week.”

In 1912, Gauntier, her husband and Olcott, her longtime creative partner, went into business together; they named their company the Gene Gauntier Feature Players Company and continued making films independently. In 1914, the International Exposition of Motion Pictures declared June 11 "Gauntier Day" in honor of her work.

Ultimately, Gauntier retired in 1920 and went on to become a journalist, later writing about her film success in her memoir Blazing the Trail. Throughout her career, she pushed the envelope as both a daring stuntswoman and a groundbreaking filmmaker. By the end of her career, she had written, directed, produced or sold over 300 scripts.

Nonetheless, Gauntier is still only credited for roughly half of her work, much of the accolades often going to her partner Sidney Olcott. With the introduction of “talkies” in the 1920s, moviemaking became a much more lucrative business, and many of the women in film were told that, despite their success, they were occupying “a man’s job” and were told to step aside.

With the male-dominated categories still persisting within the Academy Awards, I think it’s important to remember that’s not how things always were, and anyone trying to enforce a Golden Days “status quo” is simply lying. There never was a status quo in early Hollywood, but it’s high time we break the one they’re enforcing right now.